By Charles Mpaka
The Department of Forestry, which has in recent years waged a fierce war against deforestation in Malawi by cracking down on forest produce trafficking, has a second battle front to deal with: politicians and the politically-connected who are frustrating its enforcement of the law.
And, while it is able to stand up to some of the pressure, it is caving in on others, effectively exposing Malawi’s forests to further destruction.
In the latest of the cases, a cabinet minister has been linked to frustration of the law which empowers the department to seize vehicles found in trafficking of charcoal and timber, among others.
Section 113 of the Wildlife Act empowers the state to forfeit any material or any motor vehicle, among others, used in connection with any wildlife crime.
Last year alone, the department confiscated 21 vehicles it found to be transporting contraband forest produce, especially charcoal, according to a record by the department.
However, in a number of these cases, forestry officials were ordered to return the vehicles before the due process of law.
The most recent case happened two weeks ago when forestry officials in Dedza confiscated a vehicle that was transporting 50 bags of charcoal produced from Dzalanyama forest reserve, one of the 88 forest reserves in Malawi under the management of the department.
Ahead of the court process, officers received calls from a cabinet minister – not related to forestry department – to release the vehicle to the owner. (We have the name of the minister but we opt to withhold it for fear of reprisals on the senior official who the minister ordered to release the vehicle).
“The minister called me after our officers seized the vehicle which was said to belong to some businessman in Lilongwe. She ordered that we release the vehicle.
“This kind of pressure is increasing. People that are well-connected to politicians and other high-ranking officials in government are using those connections to break the law,” said the official, adding:
“Our stand is that once a vehicle has been confiscated, the due process of the law should take place. If the driver has used the vehicle for trafficking forest produce without the owners knowing, the owners may get back their vehicle but after a court process. It is the court that makes such a determination, not us,” said the official.
The official further said to ward off such pressure, sometimes they ask those pressuring them to put their orders in writing.
“Often, they are afraid of putting their orders in writing because it would be incriminating but these are powerful people and they get away with it,” the source said, indicating that was the request put before the minister.
The official further complained:
“It is not amusing to be bullied like that. We are only doing our work to protect Malawi’s forests, within the prescription of the law, and we want these cabinet ministers, the rest of politicians and top officials in the public service to support us in enforcing the law, instead of frustrating the process,” the official said.
In effect, officials who frustrate law enforcement are committing an offence.
Section 69 of the Forestry Act Amendment of 2020 provides that anyone who obstructs or hinders any officer in the performance of his or her functions, or bribes or withholds information is liable to a maximum 5 years imprisonment and a fine of K2 million.
But another area of concern is on the conduct of the judiciary in the handling of the cases where vehicles have been confiscated, according to the 2021 seizures report.
In four of the 21 cases of forfeiture, the court acted in a manner that is peculiar to forestry officials – the same court level that ordered the seizure of the vehicles was the same one that ordered the release of the vehicles to the owners, instead of a court at a higher level. Two of those four cases involved trucks belonging to Sun Seed Company and Shayona Cement Company.
We took the concern to Judiciary spokesperson, Gladys Gondwe.
She said they needed specific cases “for us to narrow down to specific facts and explain specific decisions.”
“But to say to say the least, usually these vehicles would have been seized by the police or the state agency upon effecting the arrest and not by the court itself,” she said.
Malawi is considered one of the heavily deforested in Southern Africa, with an estimated 30,000ha of forest being lost every year. This is largely due to charcoal which is a source of cooking energy for more than 96 percent of the population.
Deforestation is rated among the factors causing extensive flooding and other climate change related disasters around the world.